The Black Berets Live On

A little more than a half-century after conquered New Mexico became a U.S. state, resistance and rebellion percolated throughout the land. Dispossessed of their land base, thousands of people joined the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes, an organization of  Spanish and Mexican land grant heirs led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, demanding the return of their patrimony.

The Alianza’s 1967 armed take-over of the Tierra Amarilla court house and subsequent National Guard deployment cast international attention on an unresolved issue that remains very much alive in the 21st century.

Across New Mexico, young people calling themselves Chicanos demanded recognition of and respect for their Spanish language, their culture and their history. And in the  barrios of Albuquerque, Las Gorras Negras, the Black Berets, rose up to challenge the power structure.

Founded in 1969 and similar to the Black Panther Party, the Berets mounted community patrols, opened free medical and dental clinics, fed hungry children and issued a 12-point program that called for Chicano self-determination, community control of institutions, armed self-defense and liberation. Ahead of the times, the program attacked machismo by name and upheld equality for women.

In the late 1960s, police brutality was a huge issue in Albuquerque, and community members turned to the new activist organization for protection, recalled Black Beret co-founder Richard Moore. “They were beating and shooting our people throughout the city”, Moore said at an Albuquerque forum held this month on the history and legacy of the group. “We were facing incredible, incredible police repression.”

Moore joined several other former Berets in a presentation to an overflow crowd at Albuquerque’s South Broadway  Cultural Center. The event was emceed by Nita Luna Davis, an ex-Beret and well-known New Mexico theater producer and writer. Prior to the discussion, the audience watched a short piece by New Mexico filmmaker Dr. Federico Reade, “American Blowback: New Mexico’s Black Berets,” which is a documentary-work-in-progress about the group.

Movement veterans Joaquin Lujan and Placido Salazar placed the emergence of the Berets within the context of New Mexico’s particular historical, cultural, economic and social relationships.

Growing up in the Duranes barrio of Albuquerque’s North Valley, Lujan described feelings of oppression and frustration by the time he was a teenager in the mid-1960s, an era when the freeway symbolized the racial divide between the Chicano river valley and the then-largely Anglo and more affluent heights. Police beat young people, and the schools did not properly educate their students, instead grooming the young for low-wage work, the military or prison system, according to Lujan.

“I’m 16 and in school, and they’re already pushing me to join the Marines,” Lujan told a packed room.

The longtime activist spoke about the heroin scourge that afflicts New Mexico to this day, recounting how use of the drug had become a multi-generational disease decades ago. “There was already a grandfather, a son and a grandson who were all strung out,” Lujan said.

Hungry for a different direction in life, Lujan found his answer in the Chicano movement. First a member of the Brown Berets, the young man then joined the Black Berets when the group formed. “My true history came out when I hooked up with the gente,” he said.

Lujan reminded his listeners that a long line of resistance preceded the Berets, evident in such movements as Las Gorras Blancas, a guerrilla organization that cut fences and fought against land encroachment in northern New Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and in the miners’ strikes during the last century.

Sporting a long gray pony-tail, Placido Salazar introduced himself in Spanish and then explained he was from a land grant community. As a young man, Salazar joined the Navy and received training as an electrician. Unable to find a job after leaving the service, the New Mexico native enrolled at the University of New Mexico (UNM) to study engineering but discovered that he had “the only brown face” of 1,000 students in his class.

Salazar became active with the United Mexican American Students, a group he credited with starting Chicano Studies at the state’s flagship institution of higher education, and the Black Berets. Salazar depicted the Berets as bold, innovative and unafraid to challenge power on its own turf.

“We crashed Bruce King’s (gubernatorial) inauguration. We just walked in and sat in on the front row of the inauguration,” Salazar recalled, adding that the New Mexico State Police quickly mobilized a large force to evict the uninvited guests.

Salazar said King, ever the politician and speaking in his rural “Texas drawl” commanded the police, “’No, these boys are staying here’!” The legendary rancher/politico then asked the Berets what they wanted, and the new governor was presented with the organization’s 12-point program, Salazar said.

Like the Black Panthers, the Berets had a very strong community service component. They began a free breakfast program for low-income children even before the Albuquerque Public Schools had one, distributed clothing to the poor, launched a wood cooperative, ran a “liberation school” for pre-school age children, opened a dental clinic, and delivered health care at the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic, named after the young Chicano activist, UNM student and Beret associate who was found murdered outside Albuquerque.

The Berets even had a short-lived newspaper. A 1971 issue, published in a year when a youth uprising shook the city, was headlined “La Revolucion de Albuquerque,” or “The  Albuquerque Revolution.”

Politically, the Black Berets were soon embroiled in virtually every issue that cropped up in New Mexico-labor strikes, student struggles, prisoner rights, protests against a noxious sewer plant in the Duke City, the Chicano Moratorium against the War in Vietnam, and opposition to gentrification, including a landmark fight over urban renewal and the fate  of the Martineztown neighborhood near downtown Albuquerque.

“We were saying Martineztown is not for sale, and this year we are saying that New Mexico is not for sale,” Moore said.

The Berets made alliances with many groups both inside and outside the Chicano community. They supported the American Indian Movement, backed Navajo movements against racism in the border town of Gallup, linked up with the new National Organization for Women and worked with African-American community organizations.

The black beret itself evoked the group’s international outlook, as the hat was chosen in honor of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. “It was said Che is alive and well in the mountains of northern New Mexico,” Moore said, repeating a popular slogan of the  times.

John Goldsmith served as the chairman of the New Breed, a predominantly African-American organization in Albuquerque. Recalling collaborations with the Berets and others on community redevelopment issues, Goldsmith sketched a city where racial and class divisions and police abuse were the order of the day.

Fast forwarding years later, Goldsmith lamented the erosion of  progress from the earlier struggles, with two or three generations “lost” in the aftermath, the doors of economic opportunity shut tighter for African-Americans and others and civic education for the young neglected.

“Now more than ever, we have to become more involved in our community,” Goldsmith urged.

Filmmaker Reade credited an 80-year-old retired priest in attendance, Father Luis Jaramillo, for providing the spiritual guidance to a “rag tag group of vatos (dudes)”  that became a disciplined force.

In comments that delighted the crowd, Jaramillo said there was no contradiction between his career as a man of the cloth and his life as an activist. “I love being a priest, but that doesn’t exclude me from being a radical,” Jaramillo said. “You can’t be too intellectually radical, you just need to be intelligently rational, and that will make you radical.”

Jaramillo warned that tough times were coming, and it was time for a new generation to stand up. “Caca smells really bad no matter what, and when you smell it you fight it,” Jaramillo said to a roused house.

The Albuquerque forum did not go into detail about repression against the Berets, but the group’s activities drew the wrath of authorities and shadowy right-wing groups like the Minutemen, which regularly mailed the Berets cross-haired threats, Moore later told FNS.

The most well-known case is the police killings of Beret members Antonio Cordova and Rito Canales at an isolated site near Albuquerque in January 1972. The police agencies involved in the affair, including the Albuquerque Police Department (APD),  New Mexico State Police and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, alleged that the pair was attempting to steal dynamite from a construction shed and resisted arrest.

In 1996, a man named Tim Chapa came forward to declare that he had been a police informant who set up Cordova and Canales for assassination. Chapa’s testimony formed the basis for an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the families of Cordova and Canales against several former police officers and governmental entities.

Two months prior to the killings, the Berets attempted a citizen’s arrest of New Mexico State Penitentiary Warden Felix Rodriguez. According to multiple accounts, Cordova and Canales were killed just as they were getting to expose official wrongdoing at the pen to the press. For years, the Berets’ criticisms of corruption and violence at the joint mainly fell on deaf ears in state government.

In 1980, the prison finally exploded in a gruesome riot that left 33 inmates brutally murdered, upwards of 100 injured and several guards tortured, according to press accounts and the New Mexico Office of the State Historian. A smoldering heap of blood, smoke and ash was the result of the long-neglect and tolerance of drug-dealing and corruption at the prison.

Besides Cordova and Canales, Black Berets Juan Baca and Ramona Griego also met suspicious deaths at different times. The violent deaths of Black Berets and associates occurred at the same time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO campaign was in full gear to disrupt, divide and neutralize the Black liberation, Chicano, Native American, Puerto Rican, and antiwar movements.

Locally, an insider slipped the Berets a document that revealed a political spying unit in the APD, the Metro Squad, which kept dossiers on Chicano, African-American and antiwar activists.

South of the border, meanwhile, U.S.-backed governments in Mexico and other countries unleashed bloody dirty wars against dissidents, while the Nixon administration conspired to overthrow the elected government of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile.

Although the Berets dissolved in 1973, many members stayed active in different causes. Beret veterans became cultural workers, labor organizers and environmental justice activists. Founded in part by former Berets, the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project and Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice were both pivotal in the environmental justice movement that swept many communities of color in the United States during and after the 1980s.

In an interview with FNS, ex-Beret leader Richard Moore told the stories behind 29 photos that are on display at the South Broadway Cultural Center until October 13.

The black and white images show young women and men in an extraordinary period of New Mexico history that is still largely hidden. Photos show the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic, a Christmas party for children, a sit in at Gov. King’s office, an antiwar march, the 1971 Albuquerque Rebellion, and much more. In one scene, Bobby Garcia is shown holding a protest sign during a demonstration in front of the New Mexico State Fair grounds that was held to demand a Chicano village as part of the annual event.

“These demonstrations were what made it possible for there to be a Spanish Village at the state fair,” Moore remarked while scanning the testament to history. “A lot of people don’t know how it started.”

Moore detailed how the Berets’ activism was done on a financial fly, with people donating supplies, labor and skills to keep the movement pumping. Sympathetic  mechanics kept the troops’ old cars humming, while gas station franchisees quietly donated free tanks of gas to keep the vehicles running. Carpenters lent their muscle, and 32 doctors volunteered their time and talent when the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic got started, he said.

“There was no way we could do all this without community support, tremendous community support,” Moore reflected.

Accurately gauging the popular “pulse” and making everyone a stakeholder were two crucial lessons in community organizing the Berets took away with them from those years, Moore affirmed. “Everybody volunteered something,” he said. “Everybody can do something, no matter how old or young you are. And to us, those somethings add up to a lot.”

The Berets’ motto, Moore continued, was “Serve, Educate, Defend.”

At the Albuquerque forum, the former Berets turned over the microphone to the audience. In a mea culpa, ex-DEA and CIA agent Eli Chavez expressed regret for his military leadership in the U.S’ secret war in Laos and the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of people” during the 1960s and 1970s. The one-time Green Beret said he now wanted to wear a different hat. “I admire what you did,” the retired U.S. government official said. “I want to be a Black Beret.”

Community activist Henry Rael told the crowd that studying the histories of groups like the Black Berets “probably kept me out of jail, completely strung out.” Judy from Martineztown delivered an emotional thanks to the Black Berets for their activism in her community. Ken Ellis, father of an Iraq War veteran shot to death by Albuquerque police in a controversial incident two years ago, updated 1969 with 2012. Ellis asked people to sign a petition aimed at convening a grand jury to investigate the shooting of his son and 16 other men by the local police department since 2010, and announced an October 22 protest at APD headquarters.

“I think it’s more than an untold story,” said one young man of the Berets’ legacy. “I think it’s a story still being written.”

New Mexico ethnographer Dr. Tessa Cordova offered one of the Albuquerque forum’s final observations on the Black Berets. “It’s a movimiento that’s not over,” Cordova said. “It’s a movimiento transformed.”

The film showing and discussion in the Duke City were part of a series co-sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council, New Mexico Film Institute, UNM Center for Regional Studies and other organizations.  Previous events also attracting lively turn-outs were held in Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Las Vegas.

For future activities on Black Beret history and the Chicano movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, readers can consult the following site:

-Kent Paterson


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